nakedness and courage

I don’t know a lot about love. I’m pretty sure, though that any form of love requires nakedness and courage. Nakedness, both literately and figuratively, is vulnerability, and every vulnerability is a nakedness toward the world. To love requires both the courage to be vulnerable before the Other and the courage to commit to the Other in the face of their vulnerability. Even harder, the courage to be vulnerable to ourselves in the eyes of Another.

About nine and a half years ago I proposed to Darcie. It was the first time that she had seen me without my rugged face-shield and it was the first time I had told her – told any girl – that I loved her. In order to love truly and madly and deeply, I knew, bolstering the courage to take the leap was a prerequisite.

And there, before the nakedness of my face and the nakedness of my question she had the courage to say “yes.”

Stanley Hauerwas would say that Christians have essentially lost both the moral integrity and the theological comprehensibility to talk about marriage coherently. Marriage as an institution is in many ways over-sentimentalized, over-atomized, over-commodotized and over-sacralized. It has become an idol at its own expense. It has relegated community and friendship to perpetual inferiority complexes – the very relationships that help to sustain marriages and carry married couples and their families through ‘better or worse’.

Stan’s insights aside (it is our anniversary, after all), I have been thankful each day of the last nine years for the promises that we made to one another and to ourselves in the presence of community, family, and friends.

I don’t know a lot about love. But I have found it. Darcie, my most intimate friend, thank you for having the courage to say “yes” in spite of, in the face of, and perhaps even because of, my vulnerabilities.


Decolonizing Christianity

This past week I was profoundly impacted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission closing events here in Ottawa. To be in a room full of survivors of the residential school tragedies while the final report of the commission was being read is an experience I will never forget. However, this post is not an attempt to describe how the church should take action in response. Action is needed, yes, but we need to listen rather than suggest what this action should look like.

This post is precisely about listening. It is about listening to the stories of others, for in these stories we will find ourselves. In this case, we discover the truth about our own colonization and institutionalization.

Knights HospitallerListen to a story with me, would you, from the 11th century when a small group of Benedictine monks built an infirmary  near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. These Knights Hospitaller treated each person who came to them, whether Jewish or Muslim or Christian, as if they were serving Christ himself. They would lavish care upon them without attempting to convert them to their own religion.

In 1095, Pope Urban II declared at the Council of Clermont,

I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race (Turks and Arabs) from the lands of our friends.

KnightsThe Knights Hospitaller went from being a small group dedicated to serving the ill and wounded in the name of Christ to a band of armed guards for pilgrims, to one of the most powerful military orders in the Holy Land alongside the Knights Templar. In essence, they went from caring for the dying to carrying out the killing.
Their complicated history does not lose its caregiving and philanthropic emphasis, however, as they continue to this day to provide care through an international presence, including St. John Ambulance and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, with a strong philanthropic presence and history of military action and colonization.

I am aware that this seems like a rather long side-note, but I would encourage us to instead think of it as a very short story of Western Christianity or, in fact, a very short history of caregiving (but that for another day). The Knights Hospitaller serve as a microcosm of the impact of power on our best intentions. They show us the trajectory of institutionalized religion. They demonstrate the colonization of Christianity.

You see, what began in Christianity as a small group of people at constant risk of martyrdom, known for caring for all poor (according to Julian the Apostate) became very much a colonizing institution of power when joined with the State. Whether you tell this story from Constantine, Pope Urban II or French and English North American settlers, it matters little.

We could trace the story back even further, though, to a time before writing was the primary mode of communication and before the import of Greek thought, when oral storytelling was the only television and communal life was all that was known. A time before the selfie, before even the autobiography.

In a granted roundabout way, we have come to my thesis:

Perhaps in listening to and “sitting at the feet of” aboriginal storytelling, Canadian Christianity can regain something of its own identity that has been lost.

hi-Thomas-King-randomIn 2003, Thomas King gave the Massey Lectures on “The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative.” I came across them as I was thinking about how North American Christianity might be different if we had come to listen to, rather than tell, stories. Because even if the stories we tell are of science and progress and rights and ownership, they are still stories. As King says “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” We are storied all the way down. I recommend listening to all these lectures, but in my frame of thought the first stood out to me the most. In it, King tells an aboriginal creation story about a woman named “Charm” who falls out the other side of her own planet, lands in a water-planet, and together with water-animals and birds creates Earth out of mud. He then contrasts this with the Biblical creation story of one God, an ordered creation with one rule and then the introduction of good and evil. While telling the Native story, he tries to recreate an oral storytelling voice and craft the story in terms of a performance for a general audience. In the Christian story, he tries to maintain a sense of rehtorical distance and decorum while organizing the story for a knowledgeable gathering. As he observes, “These strategies colour the stories and suggest values that might be neither inherent nor warranted.”

Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) by Christi BelcourtGiniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) by Christi BelcourtWhereas Native stories emphasize difference, cooperation and equality, the Eurocentric Judeo-Christian story emphasizes dichotomy, competition and hierarchy. Interestingly enough, King goes on to present these two stories as themselves a dichotomy.

It is important to problematize this characterization. While many oppositions in the story can be drawn out, I would suggest that it is precisely in the way that it is told that makes the two so contradictory. In spending time drawing out certain aspects, in the ability to laugh at ironic or ridiculous aspects and steep in the mysterious and profound, it is often in how we tell the story that we tell the real story. We must remember that the original audience was less rationalistic and more communal, a rich culture of oral storytelling in its own right.

How do we tell, for example, our own creation stories?

  • Do we check-off the empirical reality of one all-powerful patriarchal God or dwell in the mystery of a birthing Spirit hovering over the waters and the mysterious plurality spoken to in the opening scenes of Genesis?
  • Do we commandeer language of ‘ruling the earth’ or bow humbly to stewardship and earth-care?
  • Do we see earth as purely striving and toil against God and one another to get back to an original garden, or learn from the story of Cain and Abel that it is competition that will shed blood and destroy the earth, and that God will provide even after sin and in hardship?
  • Do we seek a hierarchical system of governance in order and in truth or do we remember that it was the people who demanded, not God that instituted, a king? Do we recognize our radical equality with one another before God?

These are only a few of many examples, but perhaps in listening to and soaking in the stories shared by those we have failed to listen to before, we will re-encounter our own faith in an ancient-yet-new way.


In listening, we must hear not only the empirical content of those stories but to the way that the Storyteller weaves those stories, weaves our stories, together.


Art in this post: In the header, Jesus and the Disciples by Father John Giuliani. You can learn more about Fr. Giuliani here.

Near the bottom of this post on either side you will see the stained glass window in Parliament commemorating the legacy of Indian Residential Schools called Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead). For more on this, see the Parliament’s site or the site of artist Christi Belcourt.


God’s animals

peter-singer-014Today I listened to Peter Singer on CBC’s “Ideas.” You can listen yourself, here. I surprisingly agreed with a few of Singer’s observations, including his critique of the way we’re willing to turn a blind eye to children dying of preventable diseases in other countries, and admire the dedication of him and his wife starting with a 10% tithe and now contributing 30% to charity, suggesting that the goal is always to be more charitable.

This episode he was discussing “Last Rights,” euthanasia and assisted suicide. His well-known refrain is his critique of speciesism, the way in which we consider as unique or special the human race while we continue to abuse other animal species. If a horse is seriously injured or disabled, we would likely put it down. Why do we continue to uphold a double standard when it comes to human beings?

google-library_1024x768_1430The thought occurred to me – what other animal has filled tomes and libraries with works devoted to discussing the way in which to treat their own and other species ethically? I use “tomes” as it conjures up for me the image of pulling a dusty leather-bound book from an seemingly endless shelf, nestled in an ornate library filled with inquisitive minds, lengthy beards and thick spectacles. To write, to commit the creative act which passes on knowledge, wisdom and inane memes to the generations that follow us, is an exquisite act of a creative mind. It speaks to a species not bound to immediacy but opened to infinite possibilities. Alternate universes do exist, and they shape us in profound ways through the distinct way in which humans reflect creativity. Not only this, but the future itself exists in this world of possibility, shaped not by the will to the common good toward a uniquely human paradise or by acts of non-reflection and evil that threaten a nightmare that is also uniquely human.

In this way, even the work of Singer in recording his views in creative cultural expression demonstrates a distinctively human level of creativity. 

Continuing to walk past these hallowed shelves lined with dusty leather covers, we come to see not only humanity’s creativity but our bizarre obsession with moralityOnce again, Singer is an example. His beautiful compulsion to challenge the hypocrisy of helping children in distress who are near to us but not those who live far away demonstrates that, whatever our views may be, the human animal is uniquely obsessed with ethics and morality in a way unprecedented in the animal kingdom.

In this way, even the work of Singer in devoting his life to ethical inquiry and reflection demonstrates a distinctively human level of morality.

At the very least, we can maintain that the human being is strange. We are freaks in an animal kingdom primarily devoted to survival and physical pleasure. We may even give of our own money to help humans or animals who we have never met, who will never return the assistance we give them.

Christians would relate this freakery back to being made as creative and moral beings in the image of God (imago Dei). We join with Singer in protesting unnecessary cruelty to animals and celebrate his efforts to champion the cause of the stranger who is far from us. Our reason for doing so, however, is that as God’s animals we have been entrusted with a distinctly human vocation: The stewardship of the earth and the love of our neighbour. Whether our neighbour is poor or rich, able or disabled, black or white, each is uniquely called to reflect the image of God back to a creation that so desperately needs it.

Hubble-Space-Desktop-BackgroundsWhen I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,
putting all things under their authority—
the flocks and the herds
and all the wild animals,
the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,
and everything that swims the ocean currents.
O LORD, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

~ Psalm 8:3-9, NLT

The gift of grace

8d79f870c68d0770c7366938db277d32“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.’

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can only be yours if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being to reach out and take it is a gift too.”


An Excerpt from Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith by Frederick Buechner

hoping for hell

‘Perhaps’, one must always say perhaps for justice.

There is a future for justice and there is no justice except to the degree that some event is possible which, as event, exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth. Justice as the experience of absolute alterity is unpresentable, but it is the chance of an event and the condition of history.

~ Jacques DERRIDA, Force of Law

"Love Wins" by Rob Bell, Back Cover

“Love Wins” by Rob Bell

Hell has gotten a bad rap. Now if anything is going to get a bad rap, it’s probably going to be hell. For some reason, people don’t like to talk about the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44). Well, some people like to talk about hell (more specifically about other people going there), but they’re the last people who should be talking about it.

Hell is not just a Christian or Jewish concept – it features in many world religions and cultures. There is a wealth of art and literature generated from the idea of hell, some of the most famous being from Dante’s Inferno or William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and HellThe image in the header of this post is “Behold Man Without God” from William Kurelek, one of my favourite Canadian artists, who wrestled both with hell from a religious standpoint as well as with his own ‘hell’ of mental illness and depression.

So let’s get one thing straight. In this post I am not talking about a literal place of physical burning forever. In the same way that thinking about heaven as a place of actual gold streets is an unimaginative exposition of biblical texts, believing that hell is the place where great grandma Edna went to burn because she forgot to add “personal Saviour” to her sinners’ prayer is a cop-out of a potentially rich theological concept. (If you’re into shallow theological concepts, you should at least go for the hilarious kind with Louis C. K.)


Carracci – Purgatory

As a Protestant, I never really understood why Catholics believed in purgatory. The Catholic biblical defense of the place where ‘friends of God’ go to receive additional purification before entering heaven seemed weak at best. In speaking with a Dominican friar, however, I came to understand the deeper theological function of purgatory, beyond a base belief in the place itself. It is a way that Catholics are reminded that we don’t have the final answer on who will ‘make it’ into the Kingdom of God. Purgatory reinforces that there is more room for grace than we might think, and even we may be surprised at who receives the ‘Golden Ticket.’

Matthew 21:23-46, including The Parable of the Two Sons and The Parable of the Tenants is very clear that we should not be clear about who will enter the Kingdom. Jesus tells the chief priests and teachers of the law, “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do” (Matt 21:31). I love Flannery O’Conner’s depiction of this in Revelation, which I have posted previously.

So if hell is not to be used as a scare tactic to convert people to our faith, or as our description of where crusty Uncle Joe ended up because he drunk too much, how the hell are we supposed to talk about it?

1. Hell as Trauma

There’s a reason why people say they’re “going through hell” in some of the toughest periods of their life. I tend to think of this in terms of “hell as trauma.” When looking up definitions of trauma, you will find many medical definitions. I am more interested in the philosophical weight of trauma. This is one of the best descriptions I came across:

“Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.”  — Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

There is a way in which trauma exceeds our capacity. It goes beyond our adaptations to life and overwhelms us. It creates a rend in the fabric of our life that we lack the tools to repair. Now, it may be objected that hell is a spiritual description and is used only metaphorically with regard to our physical experiences. Trauma, though, in breaking through our capacity to understand and process our own experience shatters the boundary of that which we can process psychologically. What is spiritual except that which goes beyond our understanding of the physical? Is not the spiritual our way of expressing that which we can’t comprehend or that has a meaning deeper than our physical existence? In this way, trauma is hell. It is an experience so shocking that we cannot process it within the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We cannot make sense of it to ourselves. We can not comprehend it or encounter it in the same way we can other experiences. It exceeds our physical understanding of the world and has a deeply spiritual impact on our lives in ways that we find we cannot successfully recover from or adapt to.

William Blake

In trauma, then, I can think of no better “heaven” to this hell than in William Blake‘s phrase,

Love seeketh not itself to please,
nor for itself hath any care,
but for another gives its ease,
and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.

The way to save people from this hell is not to proselytize or to parade a string of comforting scripture verses. This hell has no “answer” because the question itself cannot be understood. Healing for experiences so full of pain that they cannot be understood is only possible in an unfathomable encounter with abundant love. Love cannot be fully understood, captured in words, or processed logically. Scripture itself is not a substitute for enfleshed love, which is why it spends so much time commanding and describing love. The Word must continually become flesh and make his dwelling among us, his Body.
The Imagine Dragons video below captures well this sense of hell as trauma.

2. Hell as Apocolypse

Church of St Mary the Virgin

Church of St Mary the Virgin

The New Testament prophesies the end of the world and the Second Coming or parousia of Christ:

But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. (2 Pe 3:10, NLT)

This description of fiery destruction closely resembles passages on hell, and this post by Jean-François Mouhot, the Marie Curie Fellow at Georgetown University examines the relation between modern ecologists and prophets of old. Both tell us we’re going to hell in a handbasket (or wheelbarrow if this stained-glass is any indication) if we don’t start paying attention.

Mouhot writes,

According to the Bible, as the end of times approaches, the waters will turn ‘bitter’, ocean-dwelling creatures will die and ‘on the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea’. The sun, the moon and the stars will be obscured and then the sun will heat up and burn mankind. It is not a stretch to interpret these passages as a presage of actual environmental problems: water pollution and air pollution that obscures the atmosphere (even photo pollution that impedes observation of the moon and stars), acidification of the oceans and the resultant destruction of coral reefs, global warming, rising sea levels. The passages emphasise human responsibility for environmental degradation and lay out the accompanying punishment: ‘The time has come … for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Revelation 11:18).
Kurelek "This is the Nemesis"

W. Kurelek, “This is the Nemesis”

What is perplexing, though, is that even as ecologists, world health professionals, and those who warn of nuclear disaster pick up the refrains of the prophets and their urgency echos that of apostles warning of the Second Coming, theologians and many religious fundamentalists seem to be quite content with enjoying the spoils of the earth. Warnings of end times are waning, and when they do occur (think Left Behind) they bear little in common with the potential disasters that actually threaten us.

It is a strange age when Carl Sagan is our eschatological theologian, writing in his theology tome Cosmos, “the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems will, sooner or later, lead to global disaster.” Michael Oppenheimer, climate scientist at Princeton, condemns the sins of government as he cries in the wilderness, “the need for a lot of luck looms larger and larger. Personally, I think it’s a slim reed to lean on for the fate of the planet.”

The latest prophets, such as Elon Musk, proclaim the evils of AI: “In all those stories where there’s a guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”

Especially with respect to nuclear or ecological disaster, there are striking similarities to the biblical accounts. Even more, there is a connotation of judgment since most of these scenarios are described as a result of human choices. These ‘judgments’ involve no direct divine retribution, simply natural outcomes of the choices we make.

Which brings us to the last form of hell: Hell as justice.

3. Hell as Justice

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matt. 24:36)

The concept of God as Judge, sending people to eternal torment for breaking obscure divine laws – or worse yet, for not quite believing the exact right formulation of inerrant truth – is likely what people have the hardest time believing when it comes to the idea of hell.

Let’s back the wheelbarrow up, though. What comes to mind when we think of judgment? When is it that we encounter the instinct in ourselves to distribute divine retribution?

The reality is, over the last several months I have come across countless times when I wish judgment was swift and thorough. Jesus warned, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt 6:34) and I can’t help but think that if he were walking the earth today he would add that “Sufficient for each neighbourhood is its own trouble.” In our age of instant, global communication, where the most shocking news travels the quickest, we are bombarded with the most brutal stories day and night. Most news stories we can do nothing about but pray and, well, be anxious.

(Warning: Examples to follow)

hell on earth

hell on earth

I think of the father who shot each member of his family in the head and then lit the house on fire with gasoline and fireworks. I think of the ongoing campaign of rape in the Congo.  I think of the women and girls being used as suicide bombers by Boko Harem. I think of the atrocities of ISIS and over 1,000 estimated deaths due to US drone strikes alone.

One example that was particularly upsetting was the arctic priest who was finally sentenced for dozens of horrendous sex offences against Inuit children. In contrast to ISIS burning people alive in a literal hell, the priest would threaten children with going to hell if they would not obey his wishes. I think of the hell of trauma that each one of those children, and possibly many more, endure each day of their life due to this one man’s actions. In the psychotic thoughts of this lone priest, I can only imagine him, like a child himself, pushing the limits of torture to see when his Father in the sky would step in and bring down judgment on his head. More terrifying than the fear of God reaching down to pronounce judgement is the realization that the judgment wouldn’t come. There was no Nanny in the sky who would send him to his room, just as there is no Blessings Dispenser who rewards our good behaviour from his treasure chest in the clouds, contrary to popular opinion.

We live in a world where, once away from our parents, we face the ‘dizziness of freedom’ and often shield ourselves from the full weight of ethical responsibility on our shoulders. When we encounter these horrific tales, no words adequately describe our disgust except those that draw on spiritual aspects, in ways that push beyond the limits of cognition. We are left grasping for boundary-words, such as the ‘demonic’ and ‘evil’, pointing to the fact that we cannot even fully comprehend the hell that has been wrought by these terrible deeds. In 2012, after the Aurora shootings, Rollo Romig published an article in the New Yorker on why we continue to cling to words like ‘evil’ in a world that would prefer to see itself as beyond the shadow of metaphysics.

When we grasp the horror of evil, the unimaginable suffering that it can cause and the immeasurable hell that is inflicted on its victims, any lover of justice cannot help but long for an “eye for an eye,” that retribution is swift and that the guilty party come to feel the full brunt of the pain they have caused. Confronted with this reality, we no longer cling to the “nice Jesus” and say that mercy and forgiveness is all we want. “Love wins” is not what we look for in response to these atrocities. When we hear that the pedophile arctic priest got 19 years, we may even wish there were rare exceptions to enact the death penalty in Canada.

Yet, as we think of the terror that is caused we also recall the sobering message of Hannah Arendt on the everyday banality of evil. From the trials of one of the worst mass-murderers in Nazi history, Arendt describes the problem that we face,

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Hitler's Office

Hitler’s office

Unfortunately our rage comes to a confused, tortured stop. The person in front of us is not always the demon we were expecting. When we listen to them they sound “human, all too human.” Even Hitler had an office like a normal person, not a den of iniquity. How are we to reconcile this just desire for absolute retribution with the frightening awareness that the demons we despise look an awful lot like us? What if we even start to understand some of the factors that drove them to this? We cannot simply dismiss the thirst for justice, nor can we simply forget the face of the Other who is our enemy.

Enter the promise of the Event. To recall the words of Derrida,

‘Perhaps’, one must always say perhaps for justice. There is a future for justice and there is no justice except to the degree that some event is possible which, as event, exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth. Justice as the experience of absolute alterity is unpresentable, but it is the chance of an event and the condition of history.

We need an event, an Other, a justice that is truly just. A justice that we know we cannot deliver, nor will we see in this lifetime. This justice is a ‘perhaps’. We know not what it will look like, and yet we need to believe that it will be the case. Will it involve hellfire and brimstone? That would be surprising, as it seems like a rather ‘one-size-fits-all’ form of justice. But the point is that the justice is out of our hands. Dante’s Inferno helps us imagine a bit more how this justice could look. Take, for example, the Fourth Circle of hell. This is the circle where misers and the greedy find themselves:

Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré – The Fourth Circle

… I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.
They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?

The message here is that ‘the punishment fits the crime’. We need not know the crime ourselves, nor the punishment, only that there is to be a judgment and a Judge.

Why, though, do we even need hell as justice? What if there is no ultimate justice? Each day we are confronted by the absence of justice in the world, as we cry with Christ on the cross “our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?” We long for that perfect justice, now.

We need hell, we need the future event of justice precisely because we long for it now. If we have no Other to look to who will distribute absolute justice, if we no longer believe that justice will be wrought, than we ourselves will have no peace. We lovers of justice and lovers of peace cannot have both if it depends on us, for violence must be done in the name of justice but forgiveness must be extended in the hope of peace. If we no longer believe in a God who judges justly, we must become the Judge we no longer believe in.

Thus, to hope for hell is the only hope for a world where both peace and justice are possible, where we know we are not required to do the violence required by justice. After all, we do not even know which justice is just. Caught between the chasm of evil and the almost dull face of the accused, we are at a loss. We must divest ourselves of this sacred, righteous violence. As Jewish scholar Henri Atlan argues,

The best way to rid the world of the violent sacred is to reject it onto a transcendence. The transcendence of violence… culminates in its being expelled from the normal horizon of things (Atlan 1988, 206)

Miroslav Volf summarizes in Exclusion and Embrace, “‘The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves’ is to insist that violence is legitimate ‘only when it comes from God.'”

This ‘theologization’ of violence, then, is our best hope for non-violence. The ‘perhaps’ of the event of justice is captured in our descriptions of hell, a hell that we have no idea what it looks like or where it might be, a hell that “exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth.” All we know are that there are demons that we cannot do justice to, for in doing that same justice we become demons ourselves.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil)

Our quest for justice can bring the hell of judgment to earth while we wait for a heavenly peace, or our commitment to earthly peace can look to the judgment of Another to come.

These are our two paths, oh lovers of justice and peace.


beyond compassion

Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

Whoever lives among the good is taught by pity (Mitleid) to lie. Pity fouls the air for all free souls. The stupidity of the good, after all, is unfathomable. (…) The gravediggers dig themselves diseases. Under ancient ruins rest noxious fumes. One should not stir up the morass. One should live on mountains. With blissful nostrils I once again breathe mountain freedom! My nose is finally redeemed of the odor of all human nature! Tickled by sharp breezes as if by sparkling wines, my soul sneezes – sneezes and jubilates to itself: “Gesundheit! (good health)”

~ Thus Spoke Zarathustra “The Homecoming”

Grave-digger, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1871.

And therefore let’s have fresh air! fresh air! In any case, let’s keep away from the neighborhood of all cultural insane asylums and hospitals! And for that let’s have good companionship, our companionship! Or loneliness, if that’s necessary! But by all means let’s stay away from the foul stink of inner rotting and of muck from sick worms!… In that way, my friends, we can defend ourselves, at least for a little while, against the two nastiest scourges which may be lying in wait precisely for us — against a great disgust with humanity! against a great pity for humanity!

~ On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, Section 14

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the mountain air symbolizes distance: The distance of the super-man or Übermensch over and above the ‘sickness of humanity’. Indeed, as I took the photo at the top of this post in the icefields of Alberta, I too felt invigorated and strengthened by the crisp mountain air. There is something powerful about the raw, solitary height and expanse of a mountain that Nietzsche taps into to contrast with physical and moral sickness. It must be remembered that in the ‘revaluation of all morals’, that which is considered ‘sick morality’ contains much of what he perceives as  Christian virtue.

In my initial thoughts around Nietzsche on sickness, I hoped to highlight Nietzsche’s use of ‘pity’ and ‘nausea’ or ‘disgust’ as legitimate critiques of our othering tendencies when it comes to compassion. I was going to protest the pity that distances ourselves from the other in the very approach toward the other, or the disgust we hide when we encounter that which is foreign and uncomfortable to us.

As I looked into Mitleid, though, the word used by Nietzsche for pity, while it is translated pity it contains within it mit- (with) +‎ Leid (pain, sorrow). In other words, it is too close to compassion (suffering with) to draw a distinction.

It is compassion itself that Nietzsche asserts we need to distance ourselves from.

The Turin Horse - When Nietzsche WeptThe irony of this lies in Nietzsche’s own sickness and death. Those insane asylums and hospitals that he vehemently protests here are where he spends many of his last days. The fabled tale is that his mental illness became apparent when he threw himself on a horse to save it from a flogging – compassion/pity for a service animal. While Nietzsche strives to be more than, higher than man, he eventually must confront the fact that he is human, all too human.

One could end here, observing that Nietzsche’s harsh attack on compassion is reduced to absurdity in his own sickness and compassionate action. This would be the easy out.

Nietzsche’s attack goes further, to the very nature of neigbour-love. As Zarathustra proclaims,

You crowd around your neighbor and you have pretty words for it. But I say to you: your love of the neighbor is your bad love of yourselves. You flee to your neighbor to escape yourself and you want to make a virtue of it: but I see through your ‘selflessness.’… Do I recommend love of the neighbor to you? I prefer instead to recommend flight from the neighbor and love of the farthest!

He points to the reflexivity of compassion, where our action toward the other says something powerful about ourselves. In his critique, compassion for one’s neighbour is not primarily about one’s neighbour but about not knowing how to love oneself. We take compassionate action to feel better about ourselves:

You invite a witness when you want someone to speak well of you; and when you have seduced him into thinking well of you, you then think well of yourselves.

In other words, we act compassionately because we want to see ourselves as being compassionate people. Doubting that we are, in fact, compassionate people (and being unable to assess this for ourselves) we then rely on others to confirm, for us, that we are genuinely good and caring. Nietzsche’s observations serve as a legitimate challenge to our acts of compassion.

Are we merely seeking to see ourselves as someone loveable in our acts of love for one another?

Love Your Neighbor as YourselfOn the other hand, Nietzsche’s own response to people who are ‘sick’, his wish to escape any possibility of pity or disgust by breathing ‘fresh air’, in turn may be revealing about his own failure to love or come to terms with his limitations. Our inability to face death, sickness, or disability in another is most often related to an inability to face the possibility of those things in our own lives. The power of empathy is such that we cannot escape looking into a mirror when we look into the eyes of another – in a very real way, our own identity is tied up in the eyes we stare into. Desparate for power, strength and health, Nietzsche reveals an inability to confront his own humanity, vulnerability and limitations. He is unable to behold the man” (Ecce Homo) that he is.

“You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39) can thus be seen both as a command – an exhortation to love one another well – and a truism: Just as Nietzsche observes, our love for our neighbour is powerfully intertwined with both our ability and inability to love ourselves well.

We DO love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Was Nietzsche correct that compassion (suffering with) should be surpassed, overcome? In a sense. With-ness is at the heart of Emmanuel (God-with-us)  yet suffering is never the telos or the end. We read that “for the joy that was set before him” Christ “endured the cross, despising its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). The disgust of Christ is towards shame itself, not towards those whom he came to save. “Suffering-with” was never the end goal, rather his joy was to know that those he loved and cared for would experience resurrection – new life – as precious children of God.

In our being-with, then, we must move beyond compassion to rejoicing in “that which is set before us.”

To call out the beauty, dignity, and priceless worth of the image-bearer of God who we are with is to simultaneously demonstrate God’s unrestrained love for our neighbour and to proclaim that this same love sustains us with each crisp, clean breath we breathe.



In praise of Richard Dawkins

This is a phrase I never thought I’d write:
Richard Dawkins is a truth-teller and a prophet.

Note: I write this on my personal blog because I work for the largest provider of developmental services in Ontario, and a Christian faith-based one at that, so I recognize that what I am writing may be misconstrued and as such is not indicative of the views of my organization.

Richard Dawkins has always been controversial, but he finds himself in the middle of a whirlpool of controversy surrounding a recent tweet. Here is a part of the conversation:

//, in one sense, the backlash is understandable. As an influential white male, to say something so concise and directive on an issue that impacts women most significantly, and to also include a moralizing element to it is a huge faux pas.

In another sense, however, why would anyone be surprised that this would be his view or that he would state it in this way? In one of his follow-up tweets he observes,

This, although it is rarely talked about, is absolutely true. It is a truth of which we dare not speak. To think that the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses are aborted in our own country, our own city… If that was the case then we ourselves might share some of the responsibility!

Theologian Peter Rollins (among others, I’m sure) has observed that the tremendous power of key documentaries in our time is not that they reveal new information (such as on the fact that McDonald’s food is bad for us), but that they make public both to ourselves and to others the truth that we have known all along. The revelation they make is one of self-disclosure. 

Emperor's New ClothesRecall the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: Everyone was able to go about pretending that everything was fine right up until the truth is laid bare and the excuse of ignorance is shattered. In this sense, Richard Dawkins is the child announcing “But he hasn’t got anything on!” Rather than listen to the child however, we see mass public outcry in order to try to take the words back, to feign ignorance, to drift back into the silence we have come from. The statistics (though varied, and differing by country) make it abundantly clear that the majority of women who find out that their child has a high probability of Down Syndrome DO abort them. We are a culture committed to an ethic of autonomy. As such, Western society is driven by a few key priorities, two of which are:

  1. Utility: often mixed up with “quality of life” language, we grade people based on their ability to accomplish, to attain, to contribute and
  2. Pain-avoidance: A moral imperative to avoid suffering at all costs.

Starting from these premises, we start to see why so many pregnant women choose to abort, and why Dawkins would go so far as to attach a moral judgment on the act of bringing a child with Down Syndrome into the world. The problem isn’t with Dawkins, it’s with the ‘gods’ of our society and our world – those priorities of utility and pain avoidance at all costs that define not only success but virtue in society. The real annoyance that we have with Dawkins is that he states it so openly.

In a paper in the Peace Studies Journal last year, I was able to dive into some of these issues in greater detail. You can find that paper here if you’re interested. As I describe there, the priorities that lead to Dawkins’ conclusions are embedded in the very fabric of the language we speak and the medical field as a whole. Doctors and OB’s, with one disapproving look, are able convey Dawkins’ message far more powerfully to women who are caught in the question of life-and-death than one tweet ever will. Dawkins’ sin was putting it so succinctly that it was seen for what it was.

christ-of-saint-john-of-the-crossI firmly believe that Christ provides a counter-narrative to the priorities of utility and a moral obligation to avoid suffering at all costs. The gospel message contains, at its core, the suffering of Christ on the cross, and the message of grace is simply that our striving, our utility is not what God seeks.// Hauerwas, in a recent interview, was asked “what is the role of that Christian and the church in this earthly city?” His response? “To tell the truth. Very simple. Just tell the truth and see what kinds of tensions that produces.”

The truth that millions of children are being aborted, and many of them based simply on the difference of one chromosome, is a truth that Christians – not Dawkins – need to be making society aware of. I believe that the reason that we don’t is because to do so is to recognize that we may share responsibility. We, too, often live by the same drive for utility and avoidance of suffering that forms the basis for the argument to abort. Even where our theology is solid, our actions betray us.

So how do we tell this truth? Not by judgment – after all, we do share the weight of our society together – but by radical acts of love for pregnant mothers; by telling the truth that children with Down Syndrome are real children with all of the delights, gifts, challenges, and heartache that come with being a parent; by coming alongside people in their suffering and loving them even when they don’t appear to have much to give back, in order to challenge preconceptions of pain and utility.

sevenly-blessing-not-a-burdenMe? I’m just as guilty as the next person. Well, maybe not quite – after all, I bought a “Blessing, not burden” T-shirt from that went to support, an adoption grant foundation that helps people afford to adopt children with Down Syndrome.

I’m kidding of course, that this makes me any less complicit, but it is one place to start.

And in closing, I want to thank Richard Dawkins, for prophesying the reprehensible ethical situation we will find ourselves in, and already do to a large extent, if we let our drive for utility reduce us all (especially the elderly and unborn) to calculated investments, able to be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

So many beautiful people have already not been born. It’s time to change the course we’ve set.



we are storied – together

Stories are what bring us together, what bind us together, what change us together and what tear us apart.

They make sense of our world and the role we play in it. When loss strikes us, whether through death, setbacks, or impairment, the grief is not only about the loss itself but the overwhelming project of re-formulating the story, piecing together the fragments of the assumptive world that was shattered when we realized the narrative we find ourselves in has never been the story that we thought it was.

Stanley Hauwerwas has observed,

The project of modernity is to create a people who believe they have no story except the story they chose when they had no story.

As Christians, we can’t help but find ourselves bound to story. The book that we cling to is one of stories – profound and mundane – as well as stories told by the One the story is about. They confuse us, astound us, challenge us and motivate us. Indeed, in loving God and loving our neighbour we come to realize that we are intrinsically and intimately tied not only to our own story, but the countless stories that surround us and transform us – even the stories that make little sense to us or don’t connect with the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Atlas GirlMy sister, Emily Wierenga, weaves her story intricately and beautifully, encouraging and inspiring those around her to reflect on their own stories in new and powerful ways. Through her blog and books, she vulnerably shares her struggles and triumphs in her past and present, including the ways that she has been impacted by her family and wrestling with anorexia and self-image. Her latest book, Atlas Girl, has been described;

Raw, emotive and lovely . . . Emily Wierenga’s memoir is captivating, descriptive in imagery and emotion, and you can’t help but find yourself in her story.

~Jenni Catron

Our family has supported Emily’s through her writing career, and it is exciting to see her reaching so many people with her experience and ministering to them in the story in which they find themselves.

I have a secret, though. While I have bought all of Emily’s books, I have never read one from cover to cover. You see, while so many people can’t help but find themselves in her story, I am one of the few that can’t.

Dad, Emily and I

Dad, Emily and I in Congo

The other day someone asked me where I was from. I’m never really sure how to answer that, but I made sure to include that I was born in Brazzaville, Congo. This, I usually add, is one of the most exciting aspects of my life even though I don’t remember our time there.

The start of my story goes something like this: Born in Congo, homeschooled and raised in a loving family with supportive parents, I went to Bible college… etc. Needless to say, I haven’t written a memoir. All of us Dow children are professing Christians to this day and we have a close family connection and love our parents deeply. When I look around, not many pastor’s families are as fortunate. My father has been an inspiration to me throughout my life, and I have always admired his remarkable patience and commitment to our family and his ministry.

So when this timid, short and relatively uneventful story comes crashing into the striking tales recounted by Emily of frustration and quasi-neglect, spiritual turmoil and desperation to connect with her earthly and heavenly father, I have a difficult time finding myself in her story. It is as though we grew up in two different households, with two sets of parents.

As I hear her share her story in interviews and online, in print and across the continent, I have to constantly remind myself that just because my story isn’t as dramatic doesn’t mean it is less significant. Maybe this is why I am drawn to artists like Cornelius Krieghoff (The New Year’s Day Parade – in header) who bring to life the story of ordinary Canadians in the 19th century, or the Peredvizhnikithe Wanderers, a group of Russian painters who powerfully portray the lives of peasants in the same time period (Vasily Perov – “Troika,” below). Even ordinary, mundane stories have a depth to them that can’t be fathomed until they are intimately known, and that is what these artists bring out.


Each one of us has a story to tell, to share, to come crashing into each and every other story. Community – family –  is where we come to see that my story and your story, together, is our story. We will never have one story, just as scripture does not have one story. In fact, to love our neighbour as ourselves is to come to love our neighbour, in their story, as God works to redeem all of our stories, together.

So thank you, Emily, for telling your story. I have come to realize that it will never be my story, but it is very much our story. Maybe I’ll even find the courage to read it from cover-to-cover.

freaks and lunatics

The following passage is from Revelation by Flannery O’Conner

Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.

Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives…and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.

She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.